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California

Across the Bay Area, generator etiquette and other lessons of the PG&E power shut-offs

Tom Hyde and Kim Scheffer
Tom Hyde, left, buys a can of fuel for his Coleman camp stove from Kim Scheffer at a Village True Value Hardware store in Santa Rosa.
(John Burgess / Associated Press)

Bay Area residents are unhappily adjusting to a new routine.

When talk of power shutdowns starts, there is a checklist. Get cash, gas and ice. Freeze as many water bottles as possible to keep refrigerators and freezers cold. Keep battery-operated headlamps, lanterns and flashlights at hand. Know generator etiquette: Shut off the noisy machines at night and offer to share them with neighbors.

The second power shutdown in a month, which started Saturday and ended Tuesday for most East Bay residents, found many of them more prepared.

During the first one, panic ensued when shelves quickly emptied of batteries, flashlights and ice, and long lines formed at gas stations. This time many residents already had stacks of batteries and had invested in power backup gadgets, including solar-run devices for charging telephones and listening to the radio. Cities opened charging stations and food trucks offered hot meals.

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Having to endure cold showers and no lights also paled in comparison to the fact that people in Sonoma County were losing their homes to fire.

“Maybe they should shut it off if it prevents catastrophes,” said Dave McCaughey, 63, an East Bay contractor.

But the shutdown did not prevent fire in the East Bay.

During a fierce windstorm that toppled mature trees on Sunday and littered freeways with branches, fires ignited in various Contra Costa County communities, forcing evacuations.

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One of the fires, which destroyed a swim and tennis club in Lafayette, appears to have been started by a downed Pacific Gas & Electric line in a neighborhood that the utility did not power off. The Sonoma fire also may have been ignited by a PG&E transmission line that was left with power.

Ron Del Favero, 49, a salesman who lives in Walnut Creek, was one of many East Bay residents who prepared “go bags” on Sunday. Ready to grab during an evacuation, the bags contain passports, birth certificates, photographs, jewelry, hard drives, wills and things of sentimental value.

Del Favero and his family live only a couple of miles from where the Lafayette fire burned.

“It was very scary,” he said.

The hardest hit were small businesses that had to close, hourly workers who did not get paid and people with medical needs who require electricity.

Leda Ciraolo, 56, a retired professor, awoke in the darkness early Monday to find her home in Orinda filled with smoke from the fires.

“I had trouble breathing,” she said.

She suffers from respiratory ailments, and her HEPA machine and air filters did not work without power. On Monday, with her car packed with photographs, documents and her hard drive, she went to the city’s charging station to try to book a hotel with power.

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“Put out the word,” she said. “PG&E has put us through hell.”

Ciraolo and many others also did not have cell service during the outage and could not receive alerts.

Trish Devine, 69, a Moraga resident, was awakened by noise during the first power shutdown and opened her front door. She saw flames. Without cell coverage, she had not received any warnings.

She and her husband got into their car with their dogs and left until the fire, apparently started by a vape pen, was extinguished.

Joan Weil, another Moraga resident, said the power shut-offs make her anxious because “of the lack of control.”

Residents have learned that police alerts about the timing of the outages are at best rough estimates. They power may go off before the specified time or many hours later. Residents also have learned to be leery of PG&E notices that say their addresses will not be affected by shutdowns. Many who were told they would suffer no impact lost power.

Before the shutdowns, said Weil, a retired teacher and administrator, she vacuums her house, does all the laundry, runs the dishwasher and prepares meals that can be eaten cold. Her son-in-law bought her and her husband a generator for the second outage.

Generators can keep appliances running with extension chords but do not by themselves light up entire houses. Even with a generator, people could not watch television because cable services did not work.

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Weil, whose home has solar, said she and her husband plan to invest in solar batteries, which can power a home during an outage.

She suffers from “nonsmoker’s lung cancer” and needs fresh air. She said her husband rigged up the generator to power air filters in her bedroom.

Susan Green, 71, a retired administrator, also had a generator in the Lafayette house where she is staying with her son and grandchildren for a few months. She said it stopped working half an hour after her son left the house for an outing with his kids on Sunday,

He called her and tried to instruct her on how to restart it. After he directed her to “choke” something, she said, she stopped listening. “It isn’t worth it because of the complications and the noise,” she said.

Grocery stores that stayed open with generators had almost no customers. People hunkered down at home. Once power was restored, the stores were instantly mobbed.

People with gas stoves could cook on them, but no one could barbecue because of the red flag fire alert. Most gyms shut down, and hiking trails also were closed because of the fire danger.

Jim Davis, 56, a retired business consultant, went to Arnold for the weekend. But his second home there lost power and he returned to the Bay Area. He said he tried to buy a generator for his Lafayette home, but they were sold out last weekend. He plans to try again Friday.

He lives alone and doesn’t keep much food in his refrigerator, but he needs power to keep his fish alive in an aquarium.

Over a ham-and-cheese sandwich at a bagel store in downtown Lafayette, Davis contemplated the power shut-offs.

“Are blackouts a reasonable price to pay for a reduction in the risk of a fire?” he asked. “I bet you the answer is of course not.”

PG&E is trying to protect itself from liability for starting fires, he said. “Why are they justified this year but not last year?” he asked. “The inherent risks haven’t changed.”

He said the shutdowns were costing the local economy billions of dollars in losses. If 100 homes each valued at $1 million burned, the cost to replace them would be far less, he said. He added, more soberly: “But loss of life is different.”

Once the winds have died down, PG&E must inspect the lines for damage before restoring power. Local law enforcement agencies send more texts and emails advising residents that the process has begun.

In an email Wednesday, the Moraga Police Department advised residents that power was back on.

The “Public Safety Power Shutoff is Over ... for now,” the advisory said.


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